Soviet forces in Afghanistan have flattened 50 to 60 villages in the past two weeks in a new campaign of intimidation and retaliation against villagers suspected of harboring Afghan insurgents.
A diplomatic source with close contacts in Kabul, who reported the retaliatory raids here July 14, estimated the Afghan casualties as "thousands and thousands and thousands."
Citing eyewitness reports of villages reduced to rubble in the mainly airborne attacks, he said the raids marked a change from the previous Soviet concentration on strikes against insurgent units.
[Reuters reports that Soviet troops are still pouring into Afghanistan more than six months after the Soviet-backed coup. The news service quotes one Western traveler recently returned from Kabul as saying the US government's estimate of 80,000 Soviet troops in the country is "too small."]
One Soviet attack on a village in the Gazni area of eastern central Afghanistan left 60 rebels and more than 1,000 inhabitants killed or wounded, the diplomat here said, citing reports reaching the Afghan capital of Kabul. Casualty figures were not independently confirmed, he acknowledged.
"They clearly are stepping up this tactic for whatever reason," the diplomat said. "It's still going on."
Other new patterns of Soviet activity noted by Afghanistan observers include a decrease in the number of Soviet- initiated operations against rebel units and "striking" changes in air activity at the Kabul airport, he reported.Instead of the customary nighttime landing and takeoffs. Ilyushin-76s bearing the markings of Aeroflot, the Soviet commercial airline, have been landing since July 10 during daylight hours at the rate of 8 to 12 a day.
Trucks have been unloading cargo from the big Ilyushins and transferring it to smaller transport planes that have taken off for the Afghan hinterlands.
"The Soviets are concentrating on resupply and reconfiguration," the diplomatic source concluded.
Except in Paktia Province, he said, "The Soviets are not continuing search and destroy operations, and they are not trying to expand the areas of their control. I don't know whether this is an Olympian lull or because they're preoccupied with whatever it is they're doing by air."
Some observers believe the Soviets are gearing up for a major drive against the Afghan rebels, but are holding off for public-relations reasons until the Olympics conclude in Moscow.
The perception in Kabul among Afghan residents and diplomats is that of "a change in the war," the high-level diplomatic source reported. "Fewer Soviets are engaged, but more air power is engaged. That's a change that is seen and resented."
Soviet and Afghan forces have previously raided villages in the areas of rebel ambushes or attacks to punish civilians for allegedly sheltering or aiding the antigovernment guerrillas. By several previous accounts from varying sources, firing was often way off target and casualties were low.
In the past, a diplomat explained, rebels would normally warn friendly villagers to flee when an antigovernment action was planned and a punitive raid could be expected.
The new high casualty estimates, if accurate, would indicate that the villagers had no warning. Some observers conclude that the aerial and occasional armored raids are intended to intimidate the civilian population and scare them off from aiding rebel bands.
A diplomatic report said the Soviets are replacing the heavy tanks they withdrew last month with lighter, low-slung track vehicles normally used by airborne and mobile mountain forces. Among them is the BMD, an armored personnel carrier with heavier-than-normal weaponry.
Describing them as "a cross between an armored personnel carrier and a tank," one source said the BMDs "have the weaponry of a tank and they're light and mobile and low and fast." The heavier equipment taken home by the Soviets during their highly publicized troop withdrawal last month was "virtually useless" in Afghanistan fighting conditions, he said.